ANNAPOLIS-A Baltimore County lawmaker has introduced what he calls the “anti-Jack Abramoff bill” – legislation that would distance candidates vying for seats in the Maryland General Assembly from wealthy donors by creating a fund to publicly finance their campaigns.
“Maryland is answering the call from across the country that elected officials should not be beholden to special interests,” said Delegate Jon S. Cardin, D-Baltimore County, the bill’s sponsor. “We see this as just simply good policy for the state.”
Candidates for the House of Delegates would be eligible for up to $80,000 through the primary and general elections and their counterparts in the Senate would receive $100,000.
Publicly funded candidates could receive up to double the initial allotment to match the spending of privately funded competitors, who are free to raise as much money as they are able to under current law.
“You don’t have to spend your time fundraising, you can spend it on the issues,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, the sponsor of a similar legislation in the Senate.
Candidates who opt in to the voluntary program would first have to receive donations of at least $5 from .4 percent of the registered voters in their district – or about 400 people – and raise an additional $15,000. All of that money would then be donated to the fund.
Pinsky’s bill includes a higher minimum threshold of $10 for the initial donations, but requires fewer of them.
Pinsky said the program, with costs estimated at $25 million in an election year, would be funded by diverting $7.5 million per year from the sale of unclaimed property that has reverted to the state.
This new funding source and the highly publicized lobbying scandals in the federal government have the bills’ supporters hopeful that some version will pass during this session after similar legislation stalled in committees last year. Many point to the publicly funded campaign systems that have been adopted in Arizona, Maine and Connecticut.
“This is no longer a way-off-the-radar-screen idea,” Pinsky said Friday at a Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee hearing. “It’s been tried, it’s been tested and it’s been true.”
But, opposition still lingers from last year.
Senate minority whip Andrew P. Harris, R-Baltimore County, has dubbed it the “incumbent protection act,” claiming that the bill perpetuates the very problems that it is supposed to fix.
“It does not allow the challenger to overcome the tremendous power of incumbency,” he said. “The problem is, when you impair the challenger, you foster those sorts of relationships (with wealthy interests).”
For some supporters, the bill is just a first step in stopping the growing campaign contributions. Pinsky said that he would like to see public funding for all statewide, county and municipal offices. “My personal preference would be for the Supreme Court to set limits (on campaign spending),” said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore County. “Fundraising has gotten ridiculous for all offices.”